“Smart cities” are coming—but will need some better ideas

In Rio de Janeiro, thousands of sensors are put to good use.
In Rio de Janeiro, thousands of sensors are put to good use.
Image: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes
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Chicago, the third largest city in the US, is about to get a new set of “smart city” sensors. Scientists from the University of Chicago’s Urban Center for Computation and Data (UCCD) and the federally operated Argonne National Laboratory have plans to attach a network of 40 smart sensor installations to light poles on three city campuses, Wired reports. One thousand more could eventually be added—still only enough to cover a fraction of the city.

The project, called the Array of Things (AoT) initiative, will provide real-time data on the city’s environment, infrastructure, and activity for research and—importantly—public use, according to the project’s creators. This includes things like temperature, humidity, carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide levels, and also ambient sound, light, and vibration.

What’s still missing is a large number of practical, useful applications for all this data. Perhaps hyper-local, real-time weather conditions will occasionally be useful. But other examples cited by Wired sound less compelling: Using sensors to help optimize your sidewalk routes—by pedestrian traffic or street lighting—instead of simply using your eyes to look down the street.

“We see this as a platform for studying the city,” Charlie Catlett, the project’s director, tells Quartz. “Then it becomes the responsibility of developers out there in our city—some of which have already approached us—to turn this data into useful, meaningful apps for users.” In other words: We’ll build the network and provide the data—but it’s still up to the market to create something useful with it.

It remains to be seen whether individuals and businesses can find real utility in this data once they have access to it. The optimistic view is that the coming “smart cities” boom could be a replay of the mobile platform explosion this past decade. There, phone makers such as Apple and Samsung outfitted the world with tools such as GPS chips, and app makers turned them into useful products: Uber, for example, or Google Maps.

If smart-city platforms catch on, some resulting products could become big businesses—and potentially even improve safety and quality of life. In some cities, governments are already using sensor data productively. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, thousands of sensors throughout the city now capture data ranging from street water levels to developing traffic jams. The data is streamed to a central nerve center, known as the Centro de Operacoes. City officials there use the data to make decisions in real time on pending emergencies or events as they occur.

Chicago’s experiment is worth watching, not just for what developers do with the data these smart sensors provide, but also for which data those developers wish they had.